Musically, “La Rondine” is “La Traviata” without the inspiration. Plotwise, it is “La Traviata” without the disease. Even though this story of a woman who is financially supported by one man and in love with another ranks as one of Puccini’s more intimate works, L.A. Opera has given it a rather grand staging, in this case, a revival of Marta Domingo’s 2000 production. It’s a case of too much and too little, and in all the wrong places.
Puccini opens “La Rondine” with the hit tune “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta,” a controversial declaration of love by his kept heroine, Magda (Patricia Racette). As right-off-the-bat songs go, it’s up there with “Celeste Aida” from “Aida” and “Some Enchanted Evening” from “South Pacific.” But where Verdi and Rogers & Hammerstein follow up that phenomenal inspiration with equally impactful music, Puccini immediately switches to automatic pilot, never to deliver big time again.
The soprano Renata Scotto once said of Donizetti, “You have to go beyond the music.” She could have been talking about the entire verismo canon, but especially “La Rondine.” Racette brings much emotionalism to her singing, but she is arguably at her weakest right out of the gate with “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta,” which demands arching, floating phrases. Instead, this soprano kind of squeezes them out, especially in the upper register.
Less adequate throughout is Marcus Haddock, who offers a decent but non-Italianate sound in the role of Magda’s financially challenged lover, Ruggero. Worse, his persona is totally American, as if a member of Faulkner’s Snopes family had stumbled into the Paris demimonde.
This production has better luck with the opera’s secondary couple, the poet Prunier (Greg Fedderly) and his girlfriend, Lisette (Amanda Squitieri), who happens to be Magda’s maid. Unfortunately, if you have to cast well, Prunier and Lisette aren’t the ones a director should be worried; these two characters do not have much to do. Their grandest exploit – Prunier’s failed attempt to make Lisette a professional singer – takes place sometime between acts two and three. Fedderly and Squitieri round out their routine assignments with comic lightness and fresh lyric voices.
Designer Michael Scott creates a simple seascape tableau for the final act, one that director Domingo caps with an inspired touch: When Ruggero abruptly dumps her — he finds learns she is essentially a high-class whore — Magda walks into the ocean in a watery suicide.
Everywhere else, the production is too big and too fussy. Magda’s act-one salon is a pastel overload of pinks and peaches, and the café Brullier scene has its own surfeit of inappropriate apache dancers, can-can girls and a troupe of Eliza Doolittles selling flowers.